Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paid Party Media and Outrageous Outrage

The Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus sent out a press release yesterday about an issue they perceive with the Senate DFL Caucus paying an accredited member of the capitol press corps.

The member of the press corps in question is Shawn Towle, who has received about $40,000 in payments from the Senate DFL Caucus over the past few years.

Bill Glahn first had the story of Towle's hiring by the DFL (and simultaneous listing as an accredited member of the capitol press corps) in February.

While I agree with Glahn that Towle's dual status as paid by a political party and member of the press is problematic, I could not disagree more about the way the MNSRC has attempted to make this into a scandal.

The language in the MNSRC's press release is so laughably over the top it's hard to read it with a straight face. They accuse Majority Leader Tom Bakk of "secret payments" to Towle and say that Bakk's actions damage "the integrity of the Senate."

There are a few issues with the MNSRC's press release. 

First, as the Star Tribune pointed out in their story on the matter, the Majority Leader does not issue press credentials, the Sergeant at Arms does, a fact that the MNSRC either didn't know, or didn't care to be accurate about.

Additionally, there are no "secret payments" being made. The payments being made to Towle are all disclosed on campaign finance reports, which is why this topic came up in the first place. To characterize disclosed information as "secret" takes either an amazing imagination or a complete misunderstanding of the English language.

There is nothing untoward or unusual about the arrangement of a party unit like the DFL Senate Caucus hiring a vendor to do research. It happens all the time, and as Towle points out, both Republicans and Democrats have hired him as a vendor in the past.  And while I understand that there are people who don't like Shawn Towle, hiring someone you don't like doesn't make that practice unethical or illegal.

What makes this particular situation problematic is Towle doing paid party work while also maintaining his press credentials. On this point, there are few besides Towle himself who defend his actions.

Senate Rule 16.1(a), which the MNSRC claims that Tom Bakk has somehow violated, states:
The Sergeant at Arms may not issue credentials or day passes under this rule to political organizations. For the purposes of this rule, "political organization" means an organization owned or controlled by a registered lobbyist, a political party, or any party organization.
This rule, along with a number of other rules pertaining to media credentialing was put in place in 2011 when Republicans had control of the Senate. Prior to that point, credentialing was overseen by partisan staff.  The change in rules was spearheaded by Michael Brodkorb, who was the Senate Communications Director.  Brodkorb invited David Brauer from MinnPost and conservative blogger Mitch Berg to participate in crafting the new rules, which opened up floor access to members of new media for the first time.

I spoke Brodkorb to get some background on this matter.  He told me the rule in question was created to make sure that political units (like a state party) could not take advantage of the new more open rules to say, get a tracker media credentials.  Brodkorb explained that situations like Towle's dual role was not something they dealt with at the time of the crafting, but that the intent of the rules was to make access more universally available to all members of the media, regardless of viewpoint, while not allowing staffers of political parties to exploit the openness.

The problem for the MNSRC is that there is no credible way to claim that Towle is a political party or a party organization, which is what is actually prohibited.  So while Towle's behavior may violate a rule in spirit, it doesn't in fact.

If the MNSRC really wanted to deal with the issue of credentialed members of the press receiving payments from political parties, there were a number of things they could have done to actually solve that problem. 

First of all, they could have directed their communication to the person who is actually in charge of credentialing, the sergeant at arms.  (In fact, the sergeant of arms was quite receptive to looking into this issue when he was contacted by the City Pages.)

Second, Senator David Hann, who is on the Rules committee, could have brought this issue up to that committee for discussion.

Instead of going down one of those productive paths, Hann and the MNSRC chose to dash out an over-the-top press release accusing Bakk of secret payments and shady deals, thereby ensuring that nothing will be done about this legitimate concern. In their zeal to score cheap political points, they could not bother to get their facts straight, and looked like fools in the media.

Unfortunately this is the standard method of operation in the Senate these days, as fact-free hyperventilating press releases seem to be a daily occurrence, as if they are a substitute for legitimate strategy.

It's disappointing to me that the MNSRC would take what should have been a slam dunk issue and screw up the execution so terribly.  However this isn't the first time I have been disappointed by incompetence in the MNSRC, and it certainly won't be the last.  If Republicans are looking for a scandal they should really focus some attention at why we accept such incompetence to go unchecked in the Senate.

In the meantime, while Senate staffers are high-fiving themselves over their latest totally awesome press release, the real underlying issue of party-paid members of the media will go unaddressed.